Archive

Archive for the ‘Screenwriting’ Category

From the Archives: A Road Trip Sideways – Alexander Payne’s Circuitous Journey to His Wine Country Film Comedy

September 27, 2018 Leave a comment

As promised, here’s the next From the Archives selection from my reporting about Alexander Payne’s Sideways, coverage that grew out of a week I spent on the set of the film. I’m posting this and my other Sideaways stories because Payne is about to be in the news, along with George Clooney, for their collaboration on the film The Descendants, which is Payne’s first feature-length effort as a writer-director since Sideways. A third Sideways story will soon be posted here. This blog also contains several more of my stories on Payne, whom I’ve been covering since 1996, including a couple pieces about The Descendants, the new movie that should be hitting theaters near you between mid-November and mid-December.

 

 

 

From the Archives: A Road Trip Sideways –Alexander Payne’s Circuitous Journey to His Wine Country Film Comedy

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Alexander Payne’s new movie, Sideways, took a four-year road trip from high concept to stalled project to hot property. It finally opens October 20 in a limited national release.

The inspiration for the film came from a 1998 unpublished novel by Rex Pickett, who drew closely from his own life to tell the sad and comic story of two loser buddies on a wine tour.

Adapted by Payne and writing partner Jim Taylor, the film follows best buds Jack, a libidinous ex-soap star, and Miles, a junior high English teacher and would-be writer, in a classic “men behaving badly” tale. On the journey, their addictions, obsessions and neuroses with wine and women catch up with them.

With Payne (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt), producer Michael London (Thirteen and House of Sand and Fog) got a director who left him little to do but sign off on expenditures, smooth ruffled feathers, keenly eye each day’s “takes” and stay on schedule and on budget. Payne, who also controlled the film’s “final cut,” found London a good fit.

“In terms of working with me and the actors, and then working in an effective way with the studio, he just speaks everyone’s language,” Payne said.

Although Sideways marks the first time London and Payne worked together, Payne was near the top of London’s list to adapt the book to film.

“I was really just a fan of Alexander’s before this. I really didn’t have any particular history or connection with him,” London said. “I’d read an early draft of my friend, Rex Pickett’s novel and we started talking about it as a movie.”

But London knew who and what he wanted.

“It’s not like there’s 50 directors in the world who could have done this story, and I think that’s probably true of most of the things Alexander does. They’re very unique to Alexander,” the producer said. “I was quite obsessed that he would relate to these characters (Jack and Miles) and to the whole idea of this kind of wasted wine trip and of men in mid-life crisis. It just felt like he would do something really special with that. I chased him through his agent and all the ordinary avenues, but without much luck.”

Somehow, despite London’s inability to reach him, the book got to Payne through another source.

“But it wound up sitting in his hands for about nine months because he was finishing Election, and then he was touring and doing press,” London said.

Payne was in Scotland when he finally called London.

“There was a phone message saying, ‘This is Alexander Payne. I just got off a plane in Scotland and I want to do this movie Sideways next.’”

London said Payne felt so strongly about the material that he became boldly proprietary about it, making his directing it a fate accompli.

“From our first conversation he was like, ‘I have to direct this. No one else can direct this.’”

 

Alexander Payne and principal cast on location for “Sideways”

 

A Long, Tortured Path

London got the writer-director he wanted, but not as soon as he’d hoped.

“That began a kind of very long, tortured path,” London said, “because as it turned out it was not going to be [Payne’s] next movie. He did Election and then Jack Nicholson committed, sort of unexpectedly, to About Schmidt, and that movie came together much more urgently than he imagined.”

Three years passed from when London and Payne first agreed to make Sideways to the start of production. That wait was extended by delays in the start of Schmidt.

“Every time the schedule got pushed back, he would call me in sort of an embarrassed voice,” London said. “And, obviously, there was no real conversation about taking [Sideways] to anyone else at that point because his passion for it was so great and his connection with it was so complete.”

Then came their initial sales campaign, which showed how quickly things can change in the film industry.

“We went out and took it to a whole bunch of companies,” London said. “It was right after Election opened and everybody wanted it. It was kind of like an auction thing. We set up a deal with a fantastic amount of money for everybody at a company called Artisan, which had then released a movie called The Blair Witch Project. They were the most sought after independent company in the business.”

But fortunes can shift like quicksilver in the movies.

“By the time Alexander had gone off to do Schmidt and come back,” London said, “Artisan was on the verge of going bankrupt, and the company we had sold the rights to, which made so much sense before, no longer had the marketing clout to take care of the movie properly.”

London reminded Artisan, which still wanted in, that neither party was legally obligated to the other.

“We had been quite careful not to sign contracts with them,” London said, “because when it looked like Alexander might go away and make another movie first, just in the back of our minds we thought, ‘Well, we don’t really know what Artisan is going to be like in a couple years.’ We were cautious, and properly so, and that gave us freedom so that when Alexander resurfaced and Artisan didn’t feel like the right home anymore, we were able to work out a departure from them.”

The frustration of putting off Sideways, London said, was offset by the relationship he forged with Payne over that time.

“During those three years I came to know him very well,” the producer said. “Our friendship kind of grew up during those years, which was actually very nice because it meant that instead of being out here shooting with someone I’ve just gotten to know recently, we feel like we’ve been through a couple wars together.”

In the interim, London “went off and did a couple other movies,” and Payne made perhaps his most mature film up to then in Schmidt, a jury selection at the Cannes Film Festival, one of the best reviewed films of 2002 and the filmmaker’s biggest money maker – more than $100 million worldwide.

“It all worked out very well because, by the time he was ready to do it, it was a good time for him and a good time for me,” London said.

Despite the delays, there was never a question Sideways would get made.

“Michael and Rex were hoping About Schmidt would not have come first,” Payne said. “But I just kept promising that I’m going to do [Sideways] next and I kept putting my hand in my pocket every year to renew the option on the book and then I kept to my word. As soon as Schmidt was finished I began work on this one.”

Payne said his experience with About Schmidt laid a needed foundation for his new project. “Because of my experience on Schmidt I think Sideways is a better film than it would have been otherwise,” Payne explained. “Rex said jokingly, but he means it too, that I needed to make a film about maturity before I could go back and make a film about immaturity.”

 

 

 

 

Packaged Sideways

With Artisan out of the picture, London and Payne hit on a new strategy to package Sideways – use Payne’s hot status to sell a ready-made project that retained full creative control for its makers.

“Instead of selling it, we decided the smarter way to make the movie was to have Alexander and Jim write it on spec and for us to figure out what we thought the right budget and cast for the movie was, instead of allowing the studio to own it and dictate those things,” London said. “Alexander was in a unique position of creative power because he’s riding high right now. The material’s commercial. Financiers knew if they invested in a movie about two guys on a comic journey through the wine country they were probably going to be able to sell it.”

The producer and director put the package together and formed a group to get financing. They used a ballsy, “take it or leave it” approach, and it worked.

“We rolled the dice,” London said. “When we were about eight weeks before we needed to start shooting – we waited absolutely until the last possible minute – we said, ‘OK, who wants to make this movie?’ We took it to the half-dozen or so studios and said, ‘Here’s the movie. This is the script, this is the cast, this is the budget. We hope you love it. If you don’t love it, you shouldn’t make it. Alexander has final cut. We’re not really looking for your input. We’ll listen to your input. Don’t tell us the script is too long, because we know it’s too long. Don’t tell us you think this casting is not starry enough, because Alexander’s met with a bunch of movie stars and he’s decided these are the best actors for the roles.’ And we did that and very quickly weeded out who was really serious from who wasn’t.”

For its cast, Payne originally considered a pair of stars for the juicy parts of Miles and Jack that would have raised the ante and the buzz.

“The star version of this film would have been George Clooney as Jack and Edward Norton as Miles. And I like them both very much. I think they’re both terrific and they both expressed interest in these parts,” Payne said. “And I was tempted. Actually, not with Clooney, and I told him to his face. I said, ‘I think you’re great but to ask the audience that the world’s handsomest, most famous movie star is the biggest loser actor is too much. If you were a loser in some other profession, maybe OK, like in the Coen Brothers movies, but as a loser actor? That becomes a joke of the film, and I don’t think that’s right. He was fine with that. Norton, I thought more long and hard about.”

Payne selected character actors rather than big names. For Miles, he chose Paul Giamatti (American Splendor, Confidence). For Jack, he chose Thomas Haden Church (George of the Jungle II, 3,000 Miles to Graceland, TV’s Wings). The two main women’s roles went to Virginia Madsen (The Haunting, The Rainmaker) as Maya and Sandra Oh (Under the Tuscan Sun, HBO’s Arliss) as Stephanie. Longtime companions, Payne and Oh married in January 2003.

That Payne chose lower-profile actors doesn’t mean he feigned interest in Clooney and Norton so he could placate producers or executives.

“Look, my life would have been easier, and certainly the marketing guys would have an easier time, if I had picked stars,” Payne said. “I met everyone. I met famous, not famous. Bring ‘em on. No prejudice. But, ultimately, I just wanted to really be able to cast the actors that best fit the parts.”

He acknowledged one advantage of a lowered profile.

“It’s not so much that the stars make shooting difficult, but it’s other people’s attitudes toward the stars that can become an obstacle in the shooting’ Payne said.

He said London signed off on his choices with some trepidation.

“He would have, at one time, preferred I selected more famous actors. But now he understands why everything happened the way it did,” he said. “He just couldn’t be happier. He’s only about the quality of the film and not about making it more commercial, although I know he likes me to make commercial choices.”

Romantic Discovery

Sideways is more a love story than Payne or London ever imagined. The romance was evident on the shoot and in dailies, the footage shot in a day. It became even more obvious during post-production.

The film follows best buds Jack and Miles on a central California wine country road trip that’s sidetracked after they meet Stephanie and Maya. Although Jack, a shallow, oversexed actor, is about to be married, he pairs with Stephanie, a wine-pouring hottie from a winery tasting room. He doesn’t tell her about the upcoming wedding, and he dismisses Miles’ warnings.

Miles, a smart, neurotic writer obsessed with his ex-wife, resists involvement with “another woman.” But he finally falls for Maya, an empathetic waitress who shares his appreciation for fine things, especially wine. When Stephanie discovers Jack’s deceit, she exacts revenge in a classic “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” manner. When Maya learns of the deception, she blames Miles because he should have stopped Jack’s charade.

To Jack, Haden Church brings a laidback personality, rugged blonde looks and mischievousness. For Miles, Giamatti’s intellectual air, shy reserve and world-weary demeanor perfectly capture the character.

A single scene sold Giamatti on the project.

“When I first met him (Payne) and auditioned for it, I hadn’t read the whole script. I just read what they sent me, which was the scene where Miles talks about why he loves Pinot Noir so much,” Giamatti said.

In a soliloquy to Maya, Miles explains his “thing” for Pinot Noir and unknowingly describes his strengths, weaknesses and needs:

“I don’t know. It’s a hard grape to grow. It’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It’s not a survivor like Cabernet that can grow anywhere and thrive even when neglected. Pinot needs constant care and attention and, in fact, can only grow in specific little tucked-away corners of the world. I mean, it just amazes me that only the most patient and faithful growers can uncover Pinot’s fragile, delicate qualities. And if you get the right combination of soil and sun and love, then you can coax Pinot Noir into its fullest expression. And only then, its flavors are the most haunting and brilliant and subtle and thrilling and ancient on the planet.”

“I just thought the whole idea of the obsession of wine was such an interesting theme for this guy,” Giamatti said. “There’s this kind of constant striving for transcendence through the wine and the wine milieu, and it just keeps collapsing in on the guy because he’s such a wreck.”

Running through women like a serial seducer, Jack cheats on his bride-to-be, lies to his mistress and gets caught in the act with a waitress he picks up. Running away from women like a scared boy, Miles, who ruined his marriage with an affair, hassles his ex-wife, steals from his alcoholic mother and lets Maya down.

Jack and Miles make an odd twosome in some ways and a perfect pairing in others.

“It’s a real like Laurel and Hardy thing in a way,” Giamatti said. “It has those two complementary yin and yang sides, and they shift back and forth, too. I’m the straight man and then sometimes I’m not. It’s an unlikely pairing but it has definite resonance. It’s a tricky thing whether people believe these two guys are friends. But I think among men friendships like this are not uncommon.”

Haden Church said, “I think they’re both oblivious to the strains of juvenile behavior.”

Madsen plays Maya with once-around-the-block common sense and simmering, ready-to-ignite sensuality. Oh, as Stephanie, captures her character’s vitality and toughness.

Payne was particularly struck by Giamatti, whom he called “a really great actor.” Payne feels this film could propel Giamatti and Haden Church, who nail “two really good parts for actors,” to major stardom. That happened to Reese Witherspoon after she co-starred in Payne’s Election. Payne likes a “sense of discovery” about actors.

“Who were Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland in 1970 when they did M*A*S*H? Now, when you think of that film, you say, ‘Who better?’ They became stars. I think that’s more fun,” Payne said.

 

 

The American Male

A combination buddy picture, road picture and romantic comedy, Sideways has much to say about male bonding and mating rituals. Jack and Miles display two different sides of the modern American male.

“He is two people now,” Oh said. “He is the man who refuses to grow up, right? And he’s the man who refuses to take a stand. So, this is really what we’re seeing. Jack and Miles are the two sides of the American male today.”

“And I think it shows in a very peripheral way what the result is for the American female. Stephanie comes from a long line of women embittered by hard luck with men. When she punishes Jack, there’s going to be so many women going, ‘Whoo-whoo!’ You know what I mean?” she said. “Maya’s the more advanced of the two, but she’s had her own deal with men, and she’s moved onto a place where she can still leave the door open.”

So what begins as a wine-tasting tour becomes a misadventure for the repentant, if unreformed, Jack and a romantic catharsis for Miles. Along the way, Jack and Miles’ friendship is strained and transformed.

Working with Payne

Sideways marked the first time any of the lead actors worked together or with Payne. The actors spent two weeks in rehearsal with their director, a process Giamatti said was as much about “shooting the shit and indulging in good food and wine” as work, although Haden Church said they did read the entire script and discussed scenes, plot points and characterization

After two weeks of rehearsals and 10 weeks of shooting, they were left impressed with Payne and his processes.

“He tries to make you feel as natural and comfortable as possible,” said Oh, who, until now, had only watched him work with others.

“And I really like how incredibly specific he is when he’s directing me,” Madsen said. “He says things like, ‘You know, when I was watching the movie just now I asked myself why didn’t I believe that.’ And he’ll pick out the part he didn’t believe and he’ll give you a change or give you a new note on that specific change or give you a new idea to use.”

It all gets back to trust, which is everything in the actor-director collaboration.

“I trust Alexander innately because of his films. He’ll do whatever serves the movie,” Haden Church said. “He’s had a great career. He’s critically lauded and commercially embraced. He’s one of those icons, especially with young, fickle film audiences. They love his work. So, whatever he’s doing, his process works. It gets the desired results.”

Test of Time

Even without stars, Sideways grew from the time London and Payne joined forces to when they finally signed with Fox Searchlight Pictures.

“The movie had gotten bigger. When we were talking to Artisan we were going to make it for $7 to $10 million — on a shoestring. After Schmidt, Alexander now had the power that we could actually get a healthy budget and do it on a larger scale without compromising,” London said. “It was budgeted at $16-$17 million for a 50-day shoot, which by the standards of contemporary studio movies is a tiny, tiny movie, but by the standards of a movie about a couple guys running around in wine country, is plenty of money to do it well and plenty of time do it well.”

More money means more of everything for a movie.

“It’s having more time, more crew, more resources,” London said.

As much as Payne enjoys shooting a film, there are the inevitable hassles and unavoidable grind that come with working on location over many weeks. Take after take is recorded. Before a movie is ready for screening, the whole post-production phase unfolds. The shooting phase is all about getting to that point.

“Shooting is just harvesting shots to edit,” Payne said.

Principal photography wrapped last December in the Santa Barbara area, and the film netted strong reviews from its Toronto International Film Festival premiere last month.

Payne enjoys losing himself in the editing suite. There, alone with his precious images and away from distractions, he can finally see what he’s got and shape the movie into the form it tells him to take. Payne and Kevin Tent, his long-time editor, collaborate to find the nuances, rhythms, grammar and subtext they hope will make the film warmly referenced and regarded.

The Sideways team envisions the film as a potential modest hit in the near term but as a “stand the test of time” project – one of those films with legs well after its initial release.

“We would like the financiers to make back their money and we would like it to be a beloved movie that lasts a really long time,” London said. “We would trade an awful lot of short term success for this to be a movie that 30 years from now people say about, ‘God, do you remember that movie about those two guys?’”

In a story all about detours, the making of Sideways may have taken the most unexpected path to become a charming, hip success.

Advertisements

Life Itself XVII: To All the Writers I’ve Loved Before – 25 Years of Stories About Writers and Writing

August 23, 2018 Leave a comment

Life Itself XVII:

 To All the Writers I’ve Loved Before – 25 Years of Stories About Writers and Writing

 

Noah Diaz making run for his dream at Yale School of Drama and theater companies nationwide

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/08/05/noah-diaz-making…anies-nationwide

Journalist-author Genoways takes micro and macro look at the U.S, food system

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/06/06/journalist-autho…u-s-food-syystem

Things coming full circle for Doug Marr, Phil’s Diner Series and Circle Theatre

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/04/24/things-coming-fu…d-circle-theatre/

 

 

Doug_Laura Marr

Doug Marr and wife Laura Marr

 

A book a day keeps the blues aways for avid reader and writer Ashley Xiques

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/03/03/a-book-a-day-kee…er-ashley-xiques

Voyager Bud Shaw gives up scalpel for pen

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/04/20/voyager-bud-shaw…-scalpel-for-pen

Kevin Simonson on Interviewing Hunter S. Thompson and Kurt Vonnegut

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/03/05/kevin-simonson-o…nd-kurt-vonnegut/

Literary star Ron Hansen revisits the Old West in new novel “The Kid”

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/08/25/literary-star-ro…ew-novel-the-kid/

 

Ron Hansen

 

 

Noah Diaz:

Metro theater’s man for all seasons and stages

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/07/19/noah-diaz-metro-…asons-and-stages

Old Hollywood hand living in Omaha comes out of the shadows: Screenwriter John Kaye scripted “American Hot Wax” and more

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/01/30/old-hollywood-ha…hot-wax-and-more

Bomb girl Zedeka Poindexter draws on family, food and angst for her poetry

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/03/11/zedeka-poindexte…t-for-her-poetry/

Playwright turned history detective Max Sparber turns identity search inward

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/02/07/playwright-turne…ty-search-inward/

Paul Johnsgard:

A birder’s road less traveled

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/06/24/paul-johnsgard-a…ad-less-traveled

Lew Hunter’s small town Nebraska boy made good in Hollywood story is a doozy

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/02/25/lew-hunters-smal…story-is-a-doozy

 

Hunter, Coppola B & W

Lew Hunter with Francis Ford Coppola

 

 

Alesia Lester: A Conversation in the Gossip Salon

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/03/09/alesia-lester-a-…the-gossip-salon/

Hardy’s one-man “A Christmas Carol” highlights Dickens-themed literary festival

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/11/03/hardys-one-man-a…iterary-festival/

Omaha World-Herald columnist Mike Kelly: 

A storyteller for all seasons

https://leoadambiga.com/2014/04/02/omaha-world-hera…-for-all-seasons/

 

 

Mike Kelly

Mike Kelly

 

 

Creative couple: Bob and Connie Spittler and their shared creative life 60 years in the making

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/12/23/bob-and-connie-s…rs-in-the-making/

A WASP’s racial tightrope resulted in enduring book partially set in 1960s Omaha

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/10/28/a-wasps-racial-t…t-in-1960s-omaha/

Alex Kava:

Bestselling mystery author still going strong

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/11/03/alex-kava-bestse…ill-going-strong/

Yolonda Ross adds writer-director to actress credits; In new movies by Mamet and Sayles as her own “Breaking Night” makes festival circuit

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/02/28/yolonda-ross-add…festival-circuit/

Omahans put spin on Stephen King’s “The Shining” – Jason Levering leads stage adaptation of horror classic to benefit Benson Theatre Project

https://leoadambiga.com/2014/03/17/omahans-put-thei…-theatre-project

Omaha author Timothy Schaffert delivers again with his new novel, “The Swan Gondola”

https://leoadambiga.com/2014/03/07/omaha-author-tim…the-swan-gondola/

Timothy Schaffert is seeking materials from the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition for an online archive.

Timothy Schaffert

 

The Omaha Star celebrates 75 years of black woman legacy

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/04/11/the-omaha-star-c…ack-woman-legacy/

Ex-reporter Eileen Wirth pens book on Nebraska women in journalism and their leap from society page to front page

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/03/22/ex-reporter-eile…ge-to-front-page/

Bob Hoig’s unintended entree into journalism leads to career six decades strong

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/01/25/bob-hoigs-uninte…cades-strong-now/

Wounded Knee still battleground for some per new book by journalist-author Stew Magnuson

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/04/20/wounded-knee-sti…or-stew-magnuson/

Omaha native Steve Marantz looks back at city’s ’68 racial divide through prism of hoops in new book, “The Rhythm Boys of Omaha Central”

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/04/01/omaha-native-ste…of-omaha-central/

 

 

 

From the heart: Tunette Powell tells it like it is

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/03/10/from-the-heart-t…ls-it-like-it-is/

Finding her voice: Tunette Powell comes out of the dark and into the spotlight

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/01/24/finding-her-voic…to-the-spotlight/

Omowale Akintunde film “Wigger” deconstructs what race means in a faux post-racial world

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/21/deconstructing-w…ost-racial-world/

Beware the Singularity, singing the retribution blues: New works by Rick Dooling

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/10/10/beware-the-singu…-by-rick-dooling/

 

 

Richard Dooling's photo.

Richard Dooling

 

 

Lit Fest delves into what we fear, how we relate in extremis

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/10/09/lit-fest-delves-…late-in-extremis/

Omaha Lit Fest puts focus on Women Writers and Women in Publishing

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/10/06/omaha-lit-fest-p…en-in-publishing

Omaha Lit Fest Offers a Written Word Feast

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/10/18/omaha-lit-fest-o…itten-word-feast

Writing close to her heart: Author Joy Castro

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/11/23/author-joy-castr…in-two-new-books/

Ron Hull reviews his remarkable life in public television in new memoir

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/10/06/8945/

Ferial Pearson, award-winning educator dedicated to inclusion and social justice, helps students publish the stories of their lives

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/08/25/ferial-pearson-a…s-of-their-lives

Lit Fest brings author Carleen Brice back home flush with success of first novel, “Orange Mint and Honey”

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/07/02/lit-fest-brings-…e-mint-and-honey/

Novel’s mother-daughter thing makes it to the screen

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/10/26/novel’s-mother-d…it-to-the-screen

 

 

Carleen Brice

 

 

Sun reflection: Revisiting the Omaha Sun’s Pulitzer Prize-winning expose of Boys Town

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/04/28/sun-reflection-r…ose-on-boys-town

Alexander Payne and Kaui Hart Hemmings on the symbiosis behind his film and her novel “The Descendants” and how she helped get Hawaii right

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/01/23/alexander-payne-…get-hawaii-right/

Thy kingdom come: Richard Dooling’s TV teaming with Stephen King

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/08/16/thy-kingdom-come…ith-stephen-king/

Buffalo Bill’s Coming Out Party Courtesy Author-Balladeer Bobby Bridger

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/09/06/buffalo-bills-co…er-bobby-bridger/

 

 

 

The Worth of Things Explored by Sean Doolittle in his New Crime Novel “The Cleanup”

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/07/02/the-worth-of-thi…ovel-the-cleanup/

When Safe Isn’t Safe at All, Author Sean Doolittle Spins a Home Security Cautionary Tale

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/08/19/when-safe-isnt-s…-cautionary-tale/

Acclaimed Author and Nebraska New Wave Literary Leader Timothy Schaffert

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/18/nebraska-new-wav…imothy-schaffert/

A Man of His Words, Nebraska State Poet William Kloefkorn

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/07/07/a-man-of-his-wor…illiam-kloefkorn/

 

Bill and Eloise KloefkornJACOB HANNAH / Lincoln Journal Star

 

Kurt Andersen’s new novel “True Believers” revisits 1960s through reformed radical breaking her silence

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/28/kurt-andersens-n…king-her-silence/

Dissecting Jesse James

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/10/10/dissecting-jesse-james

Ron Hansen’s masterful outlaw blues novel about Jesse James and Robert Ford faithfully interpreted on screen

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/27/ron-hansens-mast…preted-on-screen

Playwright Carlos Murillo’s work explores personal mythmaking

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/26/playwright-carlo…sonal-mythmaking

The Many Worlds of Science Fiction Author Robert Reed

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/06/22/the-many-worlds-…thor-robert-reed

He knows it when he sees it: Journalist-social critic Robert Jensen finds patriarchy and white supremacy in porn

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/06/17/i-know-it-when-i…upremacy-in-porn

Litniks Unite! The Downtown Omaha Lit Fest brings writers, artists and readers together in celebration of the written word

Litniks Unite! The Downtown Omaha Lit Fest brings writers, artists and readers together in celebration of the written word

 

photo

Omaha Lit Fest: In praise of writers and their words: Jami Attenberg and Will Clarke among featured authors

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/06/19/omaha-lit-fest-i…featured-authors/

Omaha playwright Beaufield Berry comes into her own with original comedy “Psycho Ex Girlfriend”

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/04/20/omaha-playwright…iend-now-playing/

Omaha Lit Fest: “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like”

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/10/07/omaha-lit-fest-p…-thing-they-like/

Martin Landau and Nik Fackler discuss working together on “Lovely, Still” and why they believe so strongly in each other and in their new film

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/09/23/martin-landau-an…-in-the-new-film/

Martin Landau and Nik Fackler

 

 

“Lovely, Still,” that rare film depicting seniors in all their humanity, earns writer-director Nik Fackler Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best First Screenplay

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/12/03/lovely-still-tha…first-screenplay/

Filmmaker Nik Fackler’s magic realism reaches the big screen in “Lovely, Still”

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/18/when-dreams-that…neath-do-surface

Nik Fackler, the Film Dude Establishes Himself a Major New Cinema Figure with “Lovely, Still”

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/18/the-film-dude-es…ew-cinema-figure/

Writers Joy Castro and Amelia Maria de la Luz Montes explore being women of color who go from poverty to privilege

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/05/12/writers-joy-cast…rty-to-privilege/

Being Jack Moskovitz: Grizzled former civil servant and DJ, now actor and fiction author, still waiting to be discovered

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/09/05/being-jack-mosko…to-be-discovered/

 

With his new novel, “The Coffins of Little Hope,” Timothy Schaffert’s back delighting in the curiosities of American Gothic

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/04/13/with-his-new-nov…-american-gothic/

Timothy Schaffert Gets Down and Dirty with his New Novel “Devils in the Sugar Shop”

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/29/timothy-schaffer…n-the-sugar-shop/

Rachel Shukert’s anything but a travel agent’s recommended guide to a European grand tour

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/09/05/rachel-shukerts-…opean-grand-tour/

Author Rachel Shukert: A nice Jewish girl gone wild and other regrettable stories

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/09/05/author-rachel-sh…rettable-stories/

 

Rachel Shukert

 

 

After whirlwind tenure as Poet Laureate, Ted Kooser goes gently back to the prairie, to where the wild plums grow

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/19/after-a-whirlwin…-wild-plums-grow/

Keeper of the Flame: Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Ted Kooser

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/19/keeper-of-the-fl…inner-ted-kooser

 

ted-kooser.jpg

Ted Kooser

 

 

Being Dick Cavett

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/12/04/being-dick-cavett-2/

Homecoming always sweet for Dick Cavett, the entertainment legend whose dreams of show biz Success were fired in Nebraska

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/12/04/homecoming-is-al…ed-in-nebraska-2/

 

Dick Cavett

 

 

Dream catcher Lew Hunter: Screenwriting guru of the Great Plains

http://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/09/dream-catcher-lew-hunter/

Q & A with playwright Caridad Svich, featured artist at Great Plains Theatre Conference

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/06/02/a-q-a-with-playw…eatre-conference/

Featured Great Plains Theatre Conference playwright Caridad Svich explores bicultural themes

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/05/29/featured-great-p…icultural-themes

Playwright-screenwriter John Guare talks shop on Omaha visit celebrating his acclaimed “Six Degrees of Separation”

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/06/02/playwright-john-…es-of-separation/

Attention must be paid: Arthur Kopit invokes Arthur Miller to describe Great Plains Theatre Conference focus on the work of playwrights

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/05/29/attention-must-b…s-and-their-work/

Q & A with Edward Albee: His thoughts on the Great Plains Theatre Conference, Jo Ann McDowell, Omaha and preparing a new generation of playwrights

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/05/29/a-q-a-with-edwar…n-of-playwrights/

Great Plains Theatre Conference ushers in new era of Omaha theater

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/05/28/great-plains-the…of-omaha-theater/

 

John Guare

 

 

Hard times ring sweet in the soulful words of singer-songwriter-author Laura Love, daughter of the late jazz man, Preston Love Sr.

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/01/hard-times-ring-…uthor-laura-love

Gospel playwright Llana Smith enjoys her Big Mama’s time

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/07/gospel-playwrigh…r-big-mamas-time

Blizzard Voices:

Stories from the Great White Shroud

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/07/27/blizzard-voices-…eat-white-shroud

Click Westin, back in the screenwriting game again at age 83

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/07/11/click-westin-bac…-again-at-age-83/

“The Bagel: An Immigrant’s Story” – Joan Micklin Silver and Matthew Goodman team up for new documentary

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/03/16/the-bagel-an-imm…documentary-film

Actor Peter Riegert makes fine feature directorial debut with “King of the Corner”

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/05/12/actor-peter-rieg…ng-of-the-corner/

Talking screenwriting with Hollywood heavyweight Hawk Ostby: Omaha Film Festival panelist counts “Children of Men” and “Iron Man” among credits

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/03/02/talking-screenwr…mong-his-credits/

 

Hawk Ostby

 

 

Tempting fate: Patrick Coyle film “Into Temptation” delivers gritty tale of working girl and idealistic priest in search of redemption

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/04/09/tempting-fate-pa…ch-of-redemption/

Otis Twelve’s Radio Days

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/31/otis-twelves-radio-days/

Three old wise men of journalism – Hlavacek, Michaels and Desfor – recall their foreign correspondent careers and reflect on the world today

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/18/three-old-wise-men-of-journalism/

John and Pegge Hlavacek’s globe-trotting adventures as foreign correspondents

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/02/john-and-pegge-h…n-correspondents/

 

 

John Hlavacek

 

 

Preston Love: His voice will not be stilled

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/03/preston-love-his…l-not-be-stilled/ 

 

Marguerita Washington: The woman behind the Star that never sets

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/02/marguerita-washi…-that-never-sets

“Walking Behind to Freedom” – A musical theater examination of race

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/06/21/walking-behind-t…mination-of-race

Sacred Trust, Author Ron Hansen’s Fiction Explores Moral Struggles

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/07/06/sacred-trust

Jim Taylor, the other half of Hollywood’s top screenwriting team, talks about his work with Alexander Payne

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/06/30/jim-taylor-the-o…lexander-payne-2/

Author, humorist, folklorist Roger Welsch tells the stories of the American soul and soil

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/19/author-humorist-…he-american-soul/

 

From the Archives: Warren Francke – A passion for journalism, teaching and life

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/06/11/from-the-archive…eaching-and-life

Author Scott Muskin – What’s a nice Jewish boy like you doing writing about all this mishigas?

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/12/05/author-scott-mus…ll-this-mishigas/

Vincent Alston’s indie film debut, “For Love of Amy,” is black and white and love all over

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/11/29/vincent-alstons-…nd-love-all-over

Screenwriting adventures of Nebraska native Jon Bokenkamp, author of the scripts “Perfect Stranger” and “Taking Lives'”

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/11/28/screenwriting-ad…ve-jon-bokenkamp/

 Taking Lives

Murder He Wrote: Reporter-author David Krajicek finds niche as true crime storyteller

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/10/28/murder-he-wrote-…rime-storyteller/

Bobby Bridger’s Rendezvous

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/11/bobby-bridgers-rendezvous/

Nancy Duncan: Her final story

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/09/her-final-story/

Nancy Duncan: Storyteller

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/02/nancy-duncan-storyteller/

From the Archives:

Nancy Duncan’s journey to storytelling took circuitous route

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/04/01/from-the-archive…circutious-route

Joan Micklin Silver: Maverick filmmaker helped shape American independent film scene and opened doors for women directors

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/10/10/joan-micklin-sil…-women-directors/

Joan Micklin Silver: Shattering cinema’s glass ceiling

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/18/shattering-cinemas-glass-ceiling/

Joan Micklin Silver

 

 

Doug Marr, Diner Theater and keeping the faith

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/06/doug-marr-keeping-the-faith/

Short story writer James Reed at work in the literary fields of the imagination

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/09/03/short-story-writ…-the-imagination

Culturalist Kurt Andersen wryly observes the American scene as author, essayist, radio talk show host

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/18/culturalist-kurt-andersen/

Slaying dragons: Author Richard Dooling’s sharp satire cuts deep and quick

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/18/slaying-dragons-rick-dooling/

 

K

Kurt Andersen

Hot Movie Takes: Payne’s “Downsizing” may be next big thing on world cinema landscape

April 19, 2017 1 comment

Usually, I intuit, I lose half or more of you right at the top when I post a story about Alexander Payne. I get it. I really do. Well, not entirely. It seems that for some of you Payne’s work doesn’t register as all that funny or entertaining or satisfying. This despite the fact that over the last 20 years his films have received as much or more critical praise and box office love as many directors whose movies you may more readily embrace, such as Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, David O. Russell, John Singleton, Antoine Fuqua, Jason Reitman and the Coen Brothers. I chalk it up to a taste thing. Fair enough. But I also have the sneaking suspicion that many of you have seen only a fraction of his films and that some of you have not seen any of them. If that’s true, then it’s a crying shame because you’re rejecting work based on perception without even trying it on for size. I mean, how do you really know if you like it or not if you don’t see it for yourself and purely base your appraisal on a trailer or a review or a stray comment or two? We all do it, of course, but I’m mainly addressing this to Nebraskans who, I would like to believe, should feel some natural affinity and curiosity, if not loyalty, for the work of one of their own. I know shared home state roots only go so far and Payne’s film worlds may seem very distant or disconnected from your own reality, but I don’t think that you would feel that way if you attended to them with an open mind. His humanistic films have something for everyone because they are drawn from the same human condition we all all subject to when it comes to love, loss and loneliness. If you watch his films and they still feel apart from you then his work may just not be for you but even then I suggest that that may change with his new film “Downsizing.” It’s interesting to say that because this film will intentionally be both very far removed from life as we know it and very close to it. It will depict worlds reminiscent of and different from mine and yours as it swings from some unnamed Middle Earth to very near future Omaha to a Leisure Land resort for miniaturized humans that includes a slum to Norwegian fjords and villages to various spots around the globe. In a first for Payne, much of the movie will be populated by characters representing diverse races and ethnicities to go along with the disparate locations. Visual effects will render the downsized-world alone and in juxtaposition with the normal-sized world. All of this is set against an end-of-world backdrop of extreme climatic, geo-political tensions and cosumer mania that pretty much mirrors where we’re at right now. The combination of little people. big ideas and a star-studded cast headlined by Matt Damon facing moral decisions and life and death questions amidst mind-blowing sets just might make this Payne’s first blockbuster. In which case he will be viewed in a whole new light by the industry and by some of you. Suddenly, Payne will be mentioned in the same breath with Michael Bay, J.J. Abrams, James Cameron and Christoper Nolan. Now wouldn’t that be a kick?

This is my new feature on “Downsizing” appearing in the April 2017 issue of The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/). It’s my latest read-all-about-it exclusive about the project informed by interviews with Payne, his co-writer Jim Taylor, cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, visual effects supervisor Jamie Price,  second unit director Tracy Boyd, editor Kevin Tent and casting director John Jackson, Who knows, after reading this piece it might even whet your appetite for seeing the film when it releases in December. It would behoove you to see it since I’m suggesting the film might just be the next big thing on the world cinema landscape. But don’t take my word for it. Be sure to see it for yourself when it opens and make up your mind based on that. Trailers for it should be hitting online and theaters soon, so that will give us all a sneak peak at what to expect. For you Payne cynics out there, just keep an open mind.

 

Hot Movie Takes:

Payne’s “Downsizing” may be next big thing on world cinema landscape

©by Leo Adam Biga

Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Story appears in the April 2017 issue of The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)

 

 

The Reader April 2017 by PioneerMedia.Me – issuu

https://issuu.com/thereader_elperico/docs/april_tr2017

 

Just as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey marked a seminal movie event, Alexander Payne’s Downsizing has milestone written all over it.

Kubrick’s 1968 landmark inspired by writer Arthur C. Clarke’s musings pushed special effects to new heights and gave sci-fi films higher standards to aspire to in terms of visuals and ideas. Now, a half-century from the release of that opus, Payne’s putting final touches on his own bold vision of imaginative fiction.

The big budget, visual effects-laden Downsizing confronts relevant social, political, ecological issues. Only once previously, with Citizen Ruth’s hot takes on abortion, has Payne been so thematically current. With its withering look at corporate greed, hyper consumerism, minority marginalization and ego-maniacal pitch men, Downsizing hits the zeitgeist on a global scale.

“It’s a big movie,” he said. “Not just the visual effects but the scope of the story with more of an episodic structure that spans many years and different locations.”

Just as the late Kubrick made elaborate satiric observations on human frailties, so does Payne. Their films register cold for many but there’s more warmth there than you recall. Where 2001 is a speculative adventure about the role of extraterrestrial life on Earth and beyond, Downsizing’s own mediation on what it means to be human remains firmly planted here.

Months away from its December theatrical release, Hollywood’s curious to see what a filmmaker identified with intimate human comedies does with a picture of this scale. Ironically, for Payne to achieve a film about miniaturization he worked with a larger crew and budget, on more, bigger sound stages and in more practical locations than ever before. Locations spanned Los Angeles, Omaha, Toronto and Norway. Second-unit director Tracy Boyd traveled to South Korea, Malaysia, Morocco and Spain to accrue crucial montage footage.

Downsizing’s every bit as ambitious as 2001 but both films are relatively simple at their core. Amid all its visual interstellar trappings, 2001 intimately rests on astronaut David Bowman’s interior time-space journey. Instilling in audiences the necessary sense of awe and immersion required Kubrick and Douglas Trumball to advance effects by a generation.

It’s not surprising Kubrick made Bowman’s mind-blowing head trip the POV reference point since the late iconoclast’s films were quite inner-directed despite their big ideas and sometimes massive sets.

Just as Kubrick distilled epoch events into an intimate tableaux, Payne distills human kind’s hopes, fears, vagaries in the intersection of three people meeting in a strange new world. Paul (Matt Damon) is the Everyman mensch whose surreal ride from normal to small, from nobody to pioneer, we hitch onto. Goran (Christoph Waltz) is the Euro-trash hustler who befriends him. Ngoc Lang (Hong Chau) is the Vietnamese human rights activist who becomes his love interest.

To naturalistically realize the small world, Payne relied on visual effects supervisor Jamie Price. The former Industrial Light and Magic wizard oversaw artists from ILM and other companies in making micro humans more believable than ever seen before on screen. Pulling this off is critical because the film’s entire vision hangs on audiences investing in characters and incidents without the distraction of call-attention-to-themselves effects.

Downsizing, like 2001, depends upon intact illusions without seams or wires showing. Where 2001’s monumental effects depict deep space and infinity, Downsizing depicts human discourse.

Co-writer Jim Taylor said he and Payne took the same approach to their original story as with all their films. “Really what we love are the details – the tiny, every day interactions people have. It’s such a great irony and a lot of people don’t necessarily realize this –  that the more specific you get, the more universal it is.”

Sure, the story’s replete with big concepts revolving around global warming’s dire consequences, but Taylor said, “We’re not making An Inconvenient Truth because that’s not our job. The themes are an excuse to enter this realm of relationships and personal struggles.”

Price said upon first reading the script he realized this project represented a whole new animal.

“What struck me about it immediately is that it really is an atypical visual effects movie. It’s a movie where the visual effects are used purely to serve the dramatic needs of the story. That’s a very refreshing and clever use of visual effects that drew me to it.

“Unlike building a set or having actors standing in a practical environment, there’s a lot that’s just not there when you’re rolling the camera and so you need to forge a good relationship and build the trust so that the director feels he’s going to get what he needs to tell the story the way he wants to tell it. Similarly, in visual effects, it’s our job to inform the director and the rest of the crew so that everyone has a good understanding of what we need to achieve the work successfully.”

In this case successful means making the effects look so real they blend in with the mundanity of every day life that Payne so exactingly extracts – just as Kubrick did.

“What I think makes Downsizing unique is its fresh take on a genre that’s been around for a long time,” Price said. “Movies in the past with small characters interacting with normal-sized humans have broadly fallen into three categories: science fiction, comedies, family movies or some combination. They often have a very different aesthetic than what Alexander intended.

“At one point producer Jim Burke asked me which movie in the past do I think most embodies the look we’re going for in Downsizing and I said, ‘I don’t think there is one.’ There’s pieces of movies with similar elements to what we want to achieve but there isn’t a movie that really has the same aesthetic.”

Downsizing’s its own thing, Price said, because it’s a movie crafted by an auteur. “Early on, Alexander asked me, ‘How do we make this special?’ And I said, ‘Well, the way you make it special is you make it an Alexander Payne movie, because none of these other movies are that. If you bring your sensitivity and style to it then it will become something unique and new,’ and I think it has.”

Payne said Price did things to “trick me into thinking I’m making a real movie, not a visual effects movie.”

“He did it in such a way that I could focus on what’s important, which is the story, the characters, the acting, and keep that front and center,” Payne said. “That’s not to say a lot of thought was not put into the look and to how the sets should be and what we we’re going to build and what we’re going to extend digitally. That’s a constant discussion. But through all of that I knew my job was to keep the eye on the ball of the story.

“I never want the heft of this film to mar any intimacy of tone or idiosyncrasy of humor.”

Payne relied on Price’s team to make actors at ease with the effects work. Even though this was Payne and Price’s first production together, they go back eight years to when Payne first tried getting the movie made. An advantage of the long wait between conception and production was technology advances. A constant was Payne’s desire to not interfere with the actors’ process.

“Alexander was very interested in maintaining the spontaneity of the performances, which is difficult when one of the actors isn’t there and is going to be shot later,” Price said.

It helped having a star in Matt Damon whom Payne confirms is “the total professional” he’s reputed to be.

“For Matt Damon or any actor isolated in a visual effects scene, I made sure there was a person opposite them,” Payne said. “The actor still had a true acting partner in the scene (reading lines off-camera).”

Price said, “We made some choices during the production process, such as the way we built sets or how we staged certain things, so that Alexander could sort of forget the fact there was a green screen back there or there was only one half of the performers in the scene because we were going to be shooting another element green screen later.

“We used 5-inch tall dolls as stand-ins. We placed them in the scene for the actors to look at and so the camera could frame them up. That way Alexander could see the relationship between the two. We paint them out later. We tried to recreate as much as possible the scenario described in the screenplay even though we were ultimately assembling it digitally later.”

Payne found Damon to be the Everyman he plays.

“Genuinely a delight. He is who you hope he is. And the ease with which he can do anything is really something to watch. He’s only too ready to help,”

For the lead, casting director John Jackson said he and Payne concluded Damon was the only marketable star “that could be that lower middle-class Omaha dude. He is our generation’s Jack Lemmon. He can do comedy, he can do drama, he can do everything. An audience can project whatever they need to project onto him.”

 

    Getty Images

Matt Damon

Kristen-Wiig

Kristen Wiig
Christoph Waltz
Christoph Waltz

 

Even though protecting story was Payne’s overriding concern, there’s no escaping technology with 650 visual effects shots. He said the great challenge is “having always to match the digital extension of what those sets would be.” Not just sets, but actors, too. Payne wore a motion capture suit to act out scenes’ physical movements. He knew them better than anyone having inhabited the characters and actions while writing them. The data recorded from his walk-through guided CGI artists in creating 3D-animated Previs (pre-visualization) views that served as digital storyboards.

Though the demands of visual effects sometimes required extra takes, Payne said, “I still tried to be as economical and precise as possible. I might have done more takes to get certain things right because of all the moving parts, the number of extras or something technical about the shot. Even Matt Damon told me, ‘You like to do a lot of takes, but at least I know almost every shot’s going to be in the film.’ He meant

there’s a lot of films where they shoot a ton of footage with little idea of how it might cut together. I may overshoot in takes but not too much in actual coverage.”

Payne depends on various departments to get things right. Director of photography Phedon Papamichael was among many Downsizing crew who go way back with him. The DP felt having this family of creatives around was important on a project with so many new elements,

“He was surrounded by a very experienced crew and team he’s familiar with and we were able to preserve some of that family environment on the set despite the scale,” Papamichael said. “He still knew every driver’s and grip’s name and not only their name but if they have a kid in college who plays football. All of that is different than your average big movie where the director doesn’t know the dolly grip’s name even after 14 weeks.”

Jim Taylor isn’t normally on set much but, he said,

“On this movie we thought I needed to be there all the time, so I was. There were contributions I could make. It doesn’t come up that often but Alexander likes to have someone around he can turn to and say, ‘What do you think? What does that look like to you?'”

Being there for the full 75-day shoot gave Taylor insight on where his writing mate’s come as a director.

“It was really interesting for me to see how much more masterful he was working with the actors, knowing what he needed and getting what he needed and all that.”

Payne’s primary casting director since About Schmidt has been Council Bluffs native and resident, John Jackson. On Downsizing he and Payne filled a larger than usual roster of speaking parts and background extras to reflect the story’s global reach.

“I had many more extras than I’ve ever had on a film before,” Payne said, “and extras of different races and nationalities as we tried to portray certain worlds accurately. And so just on the casting side John Jackson and I had to expand our personnel to corral all the right extras and than on the set to direct them well. That has huge impact down the chain – the assistant directors, costume, even props, get hit harder.”

Jackson usually doesn’t office where the film shoots, but he did at Pinewood Studios in Toronto, where the film’s epic sets filled mega sound stages. He was mesmerized by the production unfolding around him.

“It was every fantasy I had as a kid – being on the lot and being able to walk down onto the sound stages and onto the sets. To see it as it was happening, to see the scope of it, to see all the incredible amount of hard work, planning and organization by the different teams from the grips to the construction guys, and watch it call come together was really humbling and very exciting.”

One new creative collaborator was Italian production designer Stefania Ceila.

“She’s amazing,” said cinematographer Papamichael, “Very passionate, very vocal, expressive and stubborn, but it was a wonderful relationship. Visually. I think we definitely elevated to a new level and Alexander has embraced that. The language still has simplicity and not showing off, not getting in the way, still focusing on the humanity and the emotions of actors.

“Even with all the effects and the scale, filling up the largest stage in North America, we still applied the same   Alexander Payne language. In the end hopefully the technology will all sort of go away and just blend in – fall into his style of storytelling and people will not really be aware they’re watching an $85 million effects movie.”

Payne acknowledged the experience was more     overwhelming than past projects.

“I had moments on this film when I felt like not only did I not know what I was doing but I had never seen a movie before. It’s been a hard movie. You just get through it.”

Complicating matters, he herniated a disc in Toronto. “I suffered the indignity of directing from a wheelchair for about a week,” he said.

 

74247 full

 

Papamichael said despite everything the experience was akin to other Payne movies, adding, “It was just physically and mentally more taxing because of the longer process.”

After wrapping in Canada, the production broke before reconvening in Norway the last two weeks.

“This was the dessert of the film -– shooting in Norway,” Payne said. “We were bowled over by the beauty of the fjords, where we were shooting north of the Arctic circle  in a really beautiful region called Lofoten.”

He said the Norway sojourn involved “scouting and shooting from helicopter and boats.” “In the movie there’s a 1927 English yacht we shot on. We were living on a very large ocean liner currently not in use.”

Payne and editor Kevin Tent have been cutting since September. Rough cut screenings yield notes and feedback. Scenes get reassembled “in trying to figure out what the film wants to be,” Payne said. Frequent visual effects meetings, he said, hash out “what we’re going to put in the frame when when we shot there was only green – like literally what is that going to look like, and then tracking the execution of the visual effects artists to make sure it looks good.”

With 2001 Kubrick tackled nothing less than the dawn of man and humankind’s place in the universe. Much of his focus in that film and his other films was on the contrast between the ordinariness of life and its extremes. Under pressure, people do very wrong things. It’s an essentially pessimistic view that seems to suggest man’s inhumanity to man is inevitable and inescapable.

Meanwhile. Payne celebrates foibles as unavoidable traits of our shared imperfection. Unlike Kubrick, he’s hopeful we can navigate life without total ruin. Though divisions cause angst in Downsizing, a sense of community, sacrifice and even love prevails.

Payne said, “This film unites a lot of the themes Jim (Taylor) and I have been using in our previous films and I hope bringing them to a higher level. We will see about that. I don’t think in general it’s that different from what I’ve done before, it’s just a bigger canvas.

“When I think about movies with sprawling episodic structure I think of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2 and Nights of Cabiria, where the story follows one protagonist through a series of adventures and by the end a moment happens that kind of in retrospect gives some thematic narrative cohesion to the story. It pulls a seemingly loose narrative thread suddenly taut. I do not wish to compare Downsizing to those greats but structurally I take inspiration from them.”

Payne and his team have given themselves over to this episodic framework.

“Phedon, Stefania and I in production and now Kevin Tent and I in editing have to accept that it’s a series of short films within one film. Each visually to some degree but now musically we just have to do what feels right in the film and hope to God it holds together.”

Editing is about finding-enhancing the film’s internal rhythms. Payne said, “Getting a handle on a picture of this scope” – he expects it to run 135-140 minutes – “takes a little doing.”

Downsizing contains elements that may remind one of other films, from 2001 to The Incredible Shrinking Man, but overall there’s really nothing to compare it to.

Papamichael said it’s the one Payne film he couldn’t get a visual handle on from the script “and now that I have done it I know why – it’s so diverse in looks and stories.” He said, “It goes through this arc, starting like a regular Alexander Payne movie in Omaha with an average guy at La Casa waiting for his pizza, to he and his wife going to Leisure Land and her leaving him to go through the downsizing process alone. That’s like the whole Kubrick episode of the film. It’s like going from something in About Schimdt to 2001: A Space Odyssey.”

He said the film’s juxtaposition of plastic Leisure Land’s “absurd embrace of American Consumerism” against sterile labs, awful slums, prosaic Omaha sites, world capitals, sublime fjords and an uncharted middle-Earth “really is like a series of short stories or short films that then all connect so beautifully through Paul’s adventure of self-discovery and subtle love story with Ngoc.”

Don’t expect anything but another low-key Paynsian ending that implies more than it shows. Like his other films, Payne said, Downsizing will “end with a feeling more than an event.” “I’m glad we’re able to have an ending to this big movie that hopefully will operate in that delicate space,” Taylor said.

Second-unit director Tracy Boyd, another of Payne’s longtime collaborators, referred to Payne’s consistent goal of surrendering any conscious, overt style to story.

“He so skillfully, masterfully hides the brushstrokes of what he’s doing and you’re fully submerged in what you’re seeing that you forget there’s a director behind all of that. He’s not trying to get you to think about who’s directing the picture as so many filmmakers do. It’s only with repeat viewings you recognize the subtle techniques and clarity behind every vision you see.”

Boyd, Taylor and others close to the project express confidence this promises to be a special, stand-the-test-of-time film. Papamichael disclosed “Paramount’s fully embracing the film – they actually think they have a commercial hit on their hands.” An awards contender, too. Everyone has high praise for the work of Damon and Hong Chau, whose breakout role this could be,

Only the box-office will tell, but Payne-Taylor say it’s their only movie that may have a sequel in the offing.

Should it resonate enough to enter the pop culture consciousness, this could be Payne’s The Godfather, Taxi Driver or Pulp Fiction. Taylor said it’s not as if Payne “wants somebody to give him a shot at some franchise movie.” He echoed Payne’s inclination to do anything but an effects movie as a follow-up. Maybe a long-talked about Western. Or shooting in Greece.

“I would like to do wildly different things,” Payne said.

“That would be fun. I don’t know what yet.”

Initial reviews should appear after major fall festival screenings. Omaha’s Ruth Sokolof or Dundee Theater will premiere Downsizing for its theatrical release.

Hot Movie Takes: PAYNE’S “DOWNSIZING’” – It may be next big thing on the world cinema landscape

April 13, 2017 Leave a comment

Hot Movie Takes:

PAYNE’S “DOWNSIZING’” – It may be next big thing on the world cinema landscape

BY LEO ADAM BIGA, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
April 2017 issue of The Reader

 

P

Hot Movie Takes: John Huston, an appreciation

March 31, 2017 Leave a comment

Hot Movie Takes 
John Huston, an apprciation 

By Leo Adam Biga, author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

 

When I originally posted about the subject of this Hot Movie Take, the late John Huston, I forgot to note that his work, though very different in tone, shares a penchant for unvarnished truth with that of Alexander Payne. Huston was a writer-director just like Payne is and  he was extremely well-read and well-versed in many art forms, again just as Payne is. The screenplays for Huston’s films were mostly adaptations of novels, short stories and plays, including some famous ones by iconic writers, and the scripts for Payne’s films are mostly adaptations as well.  Huston also collaborated with a lot of famous writers on his films, including Truma Capote and Arthur Miller. The work of both filmmakers shares an affinity for ambiguous endings. I think at his best Huston was more of a classic storyteller than Payne and his films more literate. Where Huston mostly made straight dramas, he showed a real flair for comedy the few times he ventured that way (“The African Queen,” “Beat the Devil,” “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean” and “Prizzi’s Honor”). Payne insists that he makes comedies, though most would say he makes dramedies, a terrible descriptor that’s gained currency. More accurately, Payne’s comedy-dramas are satires. I think he’s more than capable of making a straight drama if he chose to, but so far he’s stayed true to himself and his strengths. If Payne is the ultimate cinema satirist of our tme, and I think he is, then Huston stands as the great film ironist of all time. With one using satire and the other using irony to great effect, their films get right to the bone and marrow of characters without a lot of facade. Just as it was for Huston, story and character is everything for Payne. And their allegiance to story and character is always in service to revealing truth.

 

 

Of all the great film directors to some out of the old studio system, only one, that craggy, gangly, hard angle of a man, John Huston, continued to thrive in the New Hollywood and well beyond.

It’s important to note Huston was a writer-director who asserted great independence even under contract. He began as a screenwriter at Universal and learned his craft there before going to work at Warner Brothers. But Huston was an accomplished writer long before he ever got to Hollywood. As a young man he found success as a journalist and short story writer, getting published in some of the leading magazines and newspapers of the day. Indeed, he did a lot things before he landed in Tinsel Town. He boxed, he painted, he became a horseman and cavalry officer in the Mexican uprisings, he hunted big gamma he acted and he caroused. His father Walter Huston was an actor in vaudeville before making it on the legitimate stage and then in films.

What he most loved though was reading. His respect for great writing formed early and it never left him. Having grown up the son of a formidable actor, he also respected the acting craft and the power and magic of translating words on a page into dramatic characters and incidents that engage and move us.

He admired his father’s talent and got to study his process up close. Before ever working in Hollywood, John Huston also made it his business to observe how movies were made.

But like most of the great filmmakers of that era, Huston lived a very full life before he ever embarked on a screen career. It’s one of the reasons why I think the movies made by filmmakers like Huston and his contemporaries seem more informed by life than even the best movies today. There’s a well lived-in weight to them that comes from having seen and done some things rather than rehashing things from books or film classes or television viewings.

Because of his diverse passions, Huston films are an interesting mix of the masculinity and fatalistic of, say. a Hemingway, and the ambiguity and darkness of, say, an F. Scott Fitzgerald or Eugene O’Neill. I use literature references because Huston’s work is so steeped in those traditions and influences. In film terms, I suppose the closest artists his work shares some kinship with are Wyler and John Ford, though Huston’s films are freer in form than Wyler’s and devoid of the sentimentality of Ford. As brilliantly composed as Wyler’s films are, they’re rather stiff compared to Huston’s. As poetic as Ford’s films are, they are rather intellectually light compared to Huston’s.

At Warners Huston developed into one of the industry’s top screenwriters with an expressed interest in one day directing his own scripts. Of all the Hollywood writers that transitioned to directing, he arguably emerged as the most complete filmmaker. While he never developed a signature visual style, he brought a keen intelligence to his work that emphasized character development and relationship between character and place. He made his directing invisible so as to better serve the story. When I think of Huston, I think of lean and spare. He perfected the art of cutting in the camera. He was precise in what he wanted in the frame and he got as close to what he had on the page and in his head as perhaps anyone who’s made feature-length narrative films. He did it all very efficiently and professionally but aesthetic choices came before any commercial considerations. He was known to be open to actors and their needs and opinions, but he was not easily persuaded to change course because he was a strong-willed artist who knew exactly what he wanted, which is to say he knew exactly what the script demanded.

His films are among the most literate of their or any era, yet they rarely feel stagy or artificial. From the start, Huston revealed a gift for getting nitty gritty reality on screen. He was also very big on location shooting when that was still more a rarity than not and he sometimes went to extreme lengths to capture the real thing, such as encamping in the Congo for “The African Queen.” Look at his “The Man Who Would Be King” and you’ll find it’s one of the last great epic adventure stories and Huston and Co.really did go to harsh, remote places to get its settings right.

The realism of his work is often balanced by a lyrical romanticism. But there are some notable exceptions to this in films like “Fat City.”

He sometimes pushed technical conventions with color experiments in “Moulin Rouge,” “Moby Dick” and “Reflections in a Golden Eye.”

As a young man learning the ropes, he reportedly was influenced by William Wyler and other masters and clearly Huston was a good student because right out of the gate with his first film as director, “The Maltese Falcon,” his work was fully formed.

In his first two decades as a writer-director, Huston made at least a half dozen classics. His best work from this period includes:

The Maltese Falcon
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
The Asphalt Jungle
Key Largo
The Red Badge of Courage
Heaven Knows Mr. Allison
Beat the Devil
Moby Dick
The Unforgiven

Huston remained a relevant director through the 1960s with such films as:

The Misfits
Freud
The List of Adrian Messenger
The Night of the Iguana
Reflections in a Golden Eye

But his greatest work was still ahead of him in the 1970s and 1980s when all but a handful of the old studio filmmakers were long since retired or dead or well past their prime. Huston’s later works are his most complex and refined:

Fat City
The Man Who Would Be King
Wiseblood
Under the Volcano
Prizzi’s Honor
The Dead

I have seen all these films, some of them numerous times, so I can personally vouch for them. There are a few others I’ve seen that might belong on his best efforts list, including “The Roots of Heaven.” Even a near miss like “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean” is worth your time. And there are a handful of ’70s era Huston films with good to excellent reputations I’ve never gotten around to seeing, notably “The Kremlin Letter” and “The Mackintosh Man,” that I endeavor to see and judge for myself one day.

 

Arthur Miller and John Huston pose with the cast of "The Misfits"

Three star-crossed iconic actors with Huston, Arthur Miller, Eli Wallach and Co. on the set of “The Misfits”

 

It would be easy for me to discuss any number of his films but I elect to explore his final and, to my tastes anyway, his very best film, “The Dead” (1987). For me, it is a masterpiece that distills everything Huston learned about literature, film, art, music, life, you name it, into an extraordinary mood piece that is profound in its subtleties and observations. For much of his career, Huston portrayed outward adventures of characters in search of some ill-fated quest. These adventures often played out against distinct, harsh urban or natural landscapes. By the end of his career, he turned more and more to exploring inward adventures. “The Dead” is an intimate examination of grief, love, longing and nostalgia. Based on a James Joyce short story, it takes place almost entirely within a private home during a Christmas gathering that on the surface is filled with merriment but lurking just below is bittersweet melancholia, particularly for a married couple stuck in the loss of their child. It is a tender tone poem whose powerful evocation of time, place and emotion is made all the more potent because it is so closely, carefully observed. Much of the inherent drama and feeling resides in the subtext behind the context. Discovering these hidden meaning sin measured parts is one of the many pleasures of this subdued film that has more feeling in one frame than any blockbuster does in its entirety. “The Dead” is as moving a meditation on the end of things, including human life, that I have ever seen.

Huston made the film while a very sick and physically feeble old man. He was in fact dying. But it might as well be the work of a young stallon because it’s that vital and rigorous. The fact that he was near death though gives his interpretation and expression of the story added depth and poignancy. He knew well the autumnal notes it was playing. The film starts his daughter Angelica Huston. It was their third and final collaboraton.

If you don’t know Huston the writer-director I urge you to seek out his work and even if you do you may discover he made films you didn’t associate with him. Just like we often don’t pay attention to the bylines of writers who author pieces we read and even enjoy, some of us don’t pay strict attention to who the directors of films are, even if we enjoy them. Some of you may even be more familiar with Huston’s acting than his directing. His turn in “Chinatown” is a superb example of character acting. My point is, whatever Huston means or doesn’t meant to you, seek out his work and put the pieces together of the many classics he made that you’ve seen and will make a point to see.

40th Anniversary of “Rocky”

December 18, 2016 Leave a comment

40th Anniversary of “Rocky”

By writing the screenplay for “Rocky,” holding out to play the title character and then delivering the goods in a surprise monster hit that earned industry praise, Sylvester Stallone pulled off a miracle every bit as dramatic as his fictional alter-ego Rocky Balboa going the distance with Apollo Creed.

Stallone literally wrote his own ticket to stardom. When he made the deal to sell the script to United Artists on the condition he star in it, he was an obscure character actor with no real prospects for a feature career. Stallone, much like the character of Rocky himself, had nothing to lose. That’s why he could afford to decline big money offers to sell the material so that the studio could cast Ryan O’Neal, Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Robert Redford or some other established star as the lead. He was in a once-in-lifetime bargaining position to say, you either make the movie with me or I take it somewhere else. Of course, there was no guarantee UA or any other studio would want his script bad enough to accept his terms.

Rocky is an interesting property because it bridges old and new trends. On the one hand, it’s very much in the tradition of old Warner Bros. urban dramas with the requisite love story and comedic relief thrown in. On the other hand it’s very much in tune with the new humanistic, ultra realism of late ’60s-early ’70s cinema that’s stripped away of easy sentiment. Under John Avildsen’s direction, the story is anchored in that dour, gritty, work-a-day world truth yet, when called for, it’s carried away by delirious, romanticized sentiment. The movie even anticipates the flawed Marvel superheroes who would come to dominate the American cinema box office decades later. As over the top as the ending of “Rocky” gets, it somehow all works and I think it’s because of the cumulative weight of all that transpires before it and by how much we invest emotionally in the lovable loser characters Stallone created.

Stallone followed his heart,, passion and instinct in drawing on real life elements and populist themes to create an original script that had box office written all over it but that no one outside Stallone, producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler and director Avildsen believed he could carry. Sure, any number of actors could have played the role, but no one knew the character as well as Stallone because Rocky Balboa grew out of his own personal and professional struggles. Stallone tapped his own demons and aspirations to conceive this anti-hero and then he used all those emotions again to bring that character to life on the set and on the screen.

Rocky hit at just the right time, too, in terms of the national zeitgeist. America was cynical and weary coming out of Watergate and Vietnam and so the moviegoing public was ready for an escapist, feel-good experience, Just as “American Graffiti” and “Jaws” had before it and just as “Star Wars” and “Superman” did after it, Rocky caught the wave of popcorn fare, only not relying on nostalgia or thrills or special effects like other blockbusters of that era, but on good old-fashioned storytelling and richly developed characters. Rocky was much closer in tone and content to, say, “On the Waterfront,” than to the other major boxing-themed movies of that period, John Huston’s “Fat City,” Martin Ritt’s “The Great White Hope” and Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull.” Which is to say that at the end of the day Rocky, like those other pictures, is not so much a boxing movie per se as it is a slice of life portrait of someone who just happens to be a boxer. “On the Waterfront” is essentially a crime film and morality play whose protagonist, Terry Malloy, is an ex-prizefighter. “Fat City” is a stark, nihilistic view of down-and-outers in skid-row Los Angeles, where a veteran club fighter mentors a new arrival. “The Great White Hope” profiles a black man, Jack Johnson, who refuses to live by the white man’s rules. “Raging Bull” is an expressionistic look at the demon’s that drove Jake LaMotta.

In my opinion, there are better movies about boxing than “Rocky,” such as “Creed,” “The Fighter,” “The Set-Up” “Ali,” and “Cinderella Man.” The fight scenes in “Rocky” are just too unrealistic for my tastes, though they mostly do work dramatically. But, again, “Rocky” transcends the boxing genre into something else again.

“Rocky” is a classic redemption story. In this first iteration of Rocky Balboa, Stallone gives us a man who could have been something as a fighter but has given up on himself just as others have given up on him. Then, he finds the love of a good woman and when presented with an extraordinary opportunity, he rededicates himself to his craft and rises to the challenge of facing the champ. Stallone was able to pour himself into the character in writing the script because he could so closely identify with the story of a guy everyone considers a loser who gets one chance to make things right. Art imitated life again when the studio relented and bankrolled his movie with him in the lead despite their grave reservations and he turned this million to one shot into the talk of the 1976 movie season and the catalyst for a career and, as it happened, for a four-decade long franchise.

In the sound era when has an actor been as responsible for his or her own star-making vehicle as Stallone was with Rocky? After all, he wrote the part that launched him into mega-stardom and gave him an enduring character he’s still playing 40 years later. The closest comparisons I can come up with are Orson Welles in “Citizen Kane,” which he co-wrote, directed and starred in, though that film didn’t really make him a star, and Matt Damon and Ben Affleck in “Good Will Hunting,” which “the boys” co-wrote and co-starred in, though Damon already had several major screen credits before Hunting.

Of course, in the silent era Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton wrote and directed pictures starring themselves and in the process created their own signature comic personas. In the early talkies era Mae West wrote the scripts for her own popular starring vehicles.

Surely other come-out-of-nowhere Hollywood stories have followed, but I doubt if any compare to what Stallone did with Rocky. First, there’s the enduring appeal of that original film that won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Editing. Everything had to come together to make Rocky work and it did. Stallone found the right producers in Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler and the right director in John Avildsen and the right supporting actors in Talia Shire, Burt Young, Burgess Meredith and Carl Weathers.

The authentic locations in Philadelphia brought a real sense of verisimilitude to the action.

Then there’s the fact that Rocky was hardly an isolated experience for Stallone. He has “screenplay” and “written by” credits on dozens of films. including some very good ones: “F.I.S.T.”; “Paradise Alley”; “Rocky II”; “First Blood”; “Rocky Balboa.” And his interpretations of Rocky in the franchise’s later movies, as the character’s moved into middle age (“Rocky Balboa”) and beyond (“Creed”) are richer and more nuanced, filled with the experience of a life lived. Even though I am not that big a fan of his work, I personally rooted for him to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for “Creed” because I thought he gave a superb performance that totally anchored that very good movie. I actually think his work in “Paradise Alley”, as an actor. writer and director is among the best he’s ever done but that cult favorite remains little seen and appreciated and apparently the studio forced him to make cuts against his wishes. I also admired what he did as an actor in “Cop Land,” when he played against type, though I think the script and direction by James Mangold undercut the power of Stallone’s performance by making his character’s slow burn too gradual.

Now that Stallone has aged into character roles, I love that he’s playing a succession of mobsters in upcoming projects: “Scarpa”; “Omerta”; and “Idiot’s Eye”. He has the presence, the charisma and the chops to bring his own take to these familiar types and to perhaps make them new.

Stallone’s path after “Rocky” has followed the inevitable highs, lows, excesses, failures and comebacks that accompany anyone’s life and career over a long span of time. It’s been 40 years since he gave us “Rocky.” It’s a testament to the indelible figure of Rocky Balboa he created that the film, the character and the resulting franchise still resonate this many years later. The “Rocky” brand is still going strong alongside other movie franchises. But unlike the others, “Rocky” doesn’t rely on visual effects and superhuman conceits. Even with its occasional flights of fancy, the “Rocky” series is firmly rooted in reality. That’s saying something in today’s CGI cinema universe.

I had an idea for an anniversary screening of “Rocky” in Omaha with hometown world champ Terence “Bud” Crawford introducing the film and serving on a panel after the screening. Fellow panelists would have included Ron “The Bluffs Butcher” Stander and Bruce “The Mouse” Strauss. Sadly, I couldn’t get support for the project. Oh, well, maybe for the 50th.

Jim Taylor, the other half of Hollywood’s top screenwriting team, talks about his work with Alexander Payne


No matter how Alexander Payne’s in-progress film Downsizing is received when released next year, it will be remembered as his first foray into special effects, science fiction, big budget filmmaking and sprawling production extending across three nations. But the most important development it marks is the rejoining of Payne and his longtime screenwriting partner, Jim Taylor, whose contributions to the film’s they’ve collaborated on often get overlooked even though he’s shared an Oscar with Payne and has been nominated for others with him. In truth, Payne and Taylor never broke with each other. Payne did make both The Descendants and Nebraska without Taylor’s writing contribution, but following their last collaboration, Sideways, and during much of the period when Payne was producing other people’s films and then mounting and making the two films he directed following Sideways, these creative partners were busily at work on the Downsizing screenplay. It’s been awhile since I last interviewed Taylor. I am sharing the resulting 2005 story here, It is included in my book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film. A new edition of the book releases Sept. 1.

As my story makes clear, Payne and Taylor go farther back then Citizen Ruth, the first feature they wrote together and the first feature that Payne directed. Their bond goes all the way back to college and to scuffling along to try to break into features. After Citizen Ruth, they really made waves with their scripts for Election and About Schmidt. And then Sideways confirmed them as perhaps Hollywood’s top screenwriting tandem. They also collaborated on for-hire rewrite jobs on scripts that others directed.

I will soon be doing a new interview with Taylor for my ongoing reporting about Payne and his work. Though Taylor is not a Nebraskan, his important collaboration with Payne makes him an exception to the rule of only focusing on natives for my in-development Nebraska Film Heritage Project. By the way, one of the films that Payne produced during his seven year hiatus from directing features was The Savages, whose writer-director, Tamara Jenkins, is Taylor’s wife. That Payne and Taylor have kept their personal friendship and creative professional relationship intact over 25-plus years, including a production company they shared together, is a remarkable feat in today’s ephemeral culture and society.

NOTE: For you film buffs out there, I will be interviewing Oscar-winning cinematographer Mauro Fiore and showing clips of his work at Kaneko in the Old Market, on Thursday, July 21. The event starts at 7 p.m. and will include a Q & A.

Link to my cover story about Mauro and more info about the event at–

https://leoadambiga.com/…/05/04/master-of-light-mauro-fiore/

 

 

<a gi-track='captionPersonalityLinkClicked' href=/galleries/search?phrase=Jim+Taylor&family=editorial&specificpeople=209181 ng-click='$event.stopPropagation()'>Jim Taylor</a> and <a gi-track='captionPersonalityLinkClicked' href=/galleries/search?phrase=Alexander+Payne&family=editorial&specificpeople=202578 ng-click='$event.stopPropagation()'>Alexander Payne</a>, winners Best Screenplay for “Sideways”

Jim Taylor and Alexander Payne, winners Best Screenplay for “Sideways”

 

Jim Taylor, the other half of Hollywood’s top screenwriting team, talks about his work with Alexander Payne

Published in a fall 2005 issue of The Reader

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

There’s an alchemy to the virtuoso writing partnership of Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, Oscar winners for Sideways (2004) and previous nominees for Election (1999), that resists pat analysis. The artists themselves are unsure what makes their union work beyond compatibility, mutual regard and an abiding reverence for cinema art.

Together 15 years now, their professional marriage has been a steady ascent amid the starts and stops endemic to filmmaking. As their careers have evolved, they’ve emerged as perhaps the industry’s most respected screenwriting tandem, often drawing comparisons to great pairings of the past. As the director of their scripts, Payne grabs the lion’s share of attention, although their greatest triumph, Sideways, proved “a rite of passage” for each, Taylor said, by virtue of their Oscars.

Taylor doesn’t mind that Payne, the auteur, has more fame. ”He pays a price for that. I’m not envious of all the interviews he has to do and the fact his face is recognized more. Everywhere he goes people want something from him. That level of celebrity I’m not really interested in,” he said by phone from the New York home he shares with filmmaker wife Tamara Jenkins (The Slums of Beverly Hills).

With the craziness of Sideways now subsided and Payne due to return soon from a month-long sojourn in Paris, where he shot a vignette for the I Love Paris omnibus film, he and Taylor will once again engage their joint muse. So far, they’re being coy about what they’ve fixed as their next project. It may be the political, Altmanesque story they’ve hinted at. Or something entirely else. What is certain is that a much-anticipated new Payne-Taylor creation will be in genesis.

Taylor’s an enigma in the public eye, but he is irreducibly, inescapably one half of a premier writing team that shows no signs of running dry or splitting up. His insights into how they approach the work offer a vital glimpse into their process, which is a kind of literary jam session, game of charades and excuse for hanging out all in one. They say by the time a script’s finished, they’re not even sure who’s done what. That makes sense when you consider how they fashion a screenplay — throwing out ideas over days and weeks at a time in hours-long give-and-take riffs that sometimes have them sharing the same computer monitor hooked up to two keyboards.

Their usual M.O. finds them talking, on and on, about actions, conflicts, motivations and situations, acting out or channeling bits of dialogue and taking turns giving these elements form and life on paper.

”After we’ve talked about something, one of us will say, ‘Let me take a crack at this,’ and then he’ll write a few pages. Looking at it, the other might say, ‘Let me try this.’ Sometimes, the person on the keyboard is not doing the creative work. They’re almost inputting what the other person is saying. It’s probably a lot like the way Alexander works with his editor (Kevin Tent), except we’re switching back and forth being the editor.”

For each writer, the litmus test of any scene is its authenticity. They abhor anything that rings false. Their constant rewrites are all about getting to the truth of what a given character would do next. Avoiding cliches and formulas and feel-good plot points, they serve up multi-shaded figures as unpredictable as real people, which means they’re not always likable.

”I think it’s true of all the characters we write that there’s this mixture of things in people. Straight-ahead heroes are just really boring to us because they don’t really exist,” said Taylor, whose major influences include the humanist Czech films of the 1960s. “I think once we fall in love with the characters, then it’s really just about the characters for us. We have the best time writing when the characters are leading us somewhere and we’re not so much trying to write about some theme.”

Sideways’ uber scene, when Miles and Maya express their longing for each other via their passion for the grape, arose organically.

“We didn’t labor any longer over that scene than others,” he said. “What happened was, in our early drafts we had expanded on a speech Miles has in the book (Rex Pickett’s novel) and in later drafts we realized Maya should have her own speech. At the time we wrote those speeches we had no idea how important they would turn out to be. It was instinctive choice to include them, not something calculated to fill a gap in a schematic design.”

 

Writer/director Tamara Jenkins and writer/producer <a gi-track='captionPersonalityLinkClicked' href=/galleries/search?phrase=Jim+Taylor&family=editorial&specificpeople=209181 ng-click='$event.stopPropagation()'>Jim Taylor</a> attend 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' intro at MoMA on February 15, 2008 in New York City.

Writer/director Tamara Jenkins and writer/producer Jim Taylorattend ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ intro at MoMA on February 15, 2008 in New York City.

 

He said their scripts are in such “good shape” by the time cameras roll that little or no rewriting is done on set. “Usually we’ll make some minor changes after the table reading that happens right before shooting.” Taylor said Payne asks his advice on casting, locations, various cuts, music, et cetera.

Their process assumes new colors when hired for a script-doctor job (Meet the Parents, Jurassic Park III), the latest being I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.

“With those projects we’re trying to accommodate the needs of a different director and we generally don’t have much time, so we don’t allow problems to linger as long as we would, which is good practice,” said Taylor. “It’s good for us to have to work fast. We’ll power through stuff, where we might let it sit longer and just let ourselves be stuck.”

Ego suppression explains in part how they avoid any big blow ups.

”I think it’s because both of us are interested in making a good movie more than having our own ideas validated,” Taylor said. “So we are able to, hopefully, set our egos aside when we’re working and say, ‘Oh, that’s a good idea,’ or, ‘That’s a better idea.’ I think a lot of writing teams split up because they’re too concerned about protecting what they did as opposed to remembering what’s good for the script. We can work out disagreements without having any fallout from it. It’s funny. I mean, sometimes we do act like a married couple. There’s negotiations to be made. But mostly we just get along and enjoy working together.”

As conjurers in the idiom of comedy, he said, “I think our shared sensibilities are similar enough that if I can make him laugh or he can make me laugh, then we feel like we’re on the right track.”

Collaboration is nothing new for Taylor, a Pomona College and New York University Tisch School of the Arts grad, who’s directed a short as well as second unit work on Payne shoots (most of the 16 millimeter footage in Election) and is developing feature scripts for himself to direct.

”For me, I didn’t set out to be a screenwriter, I set out to be a filmmaker,” said Taylor, a former Cannon Films grunt and assistant to director Ivan Passer (Cutter’s Way). So did Alexander. And we kind of think of it all as one process, along with editing…People say everything is writing. Editing is writing and in a strange way acting is writing, and all that. Filmmaking itself is a collaborative medium. People drawn to filmmaking are drawn to working with other people. Sure, a lot of screenwriters do hole up somewhere so they’re not disturbed, but I’m not like that and Alexander’s not like that. I don’t like working on my own. I like to bounce ideas off people. Filmmaking demands it, as opposed to being a novelist or a painter, who work in forms that aren’t necessarily collaborative.”

Simpatico as they are, there’s also a pragmatic reason for pairing up.

”We just don’t like doing it alone and it’s less productive, too. And we sort of have similar ideas, so why not do it together? Even beyond that, it’s like a quantum leap in creativity. You’re just sort of inspired more to come up with something than if you’re just sitting there and hating what you’re doing. At least there’s somebody there going, ‘Oh, that’s good,’ or, ‘How do we do this?’ And you sort of stick with the problem as opposed to going off and cleaning out a drawer or something.”

Payne says scripting with someone else makes the writing process “less hideous.” For Taylor, flying solo is something to be avoided at all costs.

”I hate it. I really hate it. I mean, I do it, but it’s very slow and I don’t think it’s as good,” he said. “I’m getting Alexander’s input on something I’ve been working on for a long, long time on my own, a screenplay called The Lost Cause about a Civil War reenactor, and I expect it to became 50 percent better just because of working with him. We’ll essentially do with it what we do on a production rewrite.”

Lost Cause was part of a “blind deal” Taylor had with Paramount’s Scott Rudin, now at Disney. The fate of Taylor’s deal is unclear.

Writing with his other half, Taylor said, opens a script to new possibilities. “I’ll see it through different eyes when I’m sitting next to Alexander and maybe have ideas I wouldn’t otherwise.”

The pair’s operated like this since their first gig, co-writing short films for cable’s Playboy Inside Out series. The friends and one time roommates have been linked ever since. ”It’s pretty hard to extract the friendship from the partnership or vice versa. It’s all kind of parts of the same thing. We don’t end up seeing each other that much because we live in separate cities, unless we’re working together,” Taylor said. “So our friendship is a little bit dependent on our work life at this point, which is too bad.” However, he added there’s an upside to not being together all the time in the intense way collaborators interact, “It’s important to not get too overdosed on who you’re working with.”

He can’t imagine them going their separate ways unless there’s a serious falling out. ”That would only happen of we had personal problems with each other. Sometimes, people naturally drift apart, and we’re both working against that. We’re trying to make sure that it doesn’t just drift away, because that would be sad.”

Keeping the alliance alive is complicated by living on opposite coasts and the demands of individual lives/careers. But when Taylor talks about going off one day to make his own movies, he means temporarily. He knows Payne has his back. “He’s supportive of my wanting to direct. But I’m so happy working with him that if that were all my career was, I’d be a very lucky person.”

%d bloggers like this: